When the first Duke of Buckingham acquired this painting and one of Johannes Froben (see RCIN 403035), from Michel Le Blond in c.1625 ,it seems that they were a diptych, joined together with a hinge. By the time the Duke presented them to Charles I they were two distinct panels and they have been separate ever since. It is thought that Charles I ordered the works to be enlarged and that he commissioned Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger (c.1580-1649) to add perspectival backgrounds to both portraits. Steenwyck had come to London in 1617 from Antwerp, and under the patronage of Charles I created fanciful architectural backgrounds for works by celebrated artists (such as van Somer, Mytens and Van Dyck). During conservation in 1927 the Steenwyck background was removed from portrait of Froben, but the overpainted alteration remains on the present work.
The portrait of Erasmus is most likely a loose copy, by a follower, of Holbein’s original of 1523 (private collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London). Numerous versions of this composition exist showing the scholar in a study-like interior, thereby drawing comparison with Renaissance depictions of the scholarly St Jerome. Of all Holbein’s sitters, Erasmus was portrayed most often.
X-rays have revealed that originally the portraits of both Froben and Erasmus shared the same green curtain in the background. This may indicate that the Erasmus portrait was painted specifically to act as a pair to Froben. Consequently, it is possible that the original owner of both portraits was Froben himself, and that he wanted to create a ‘friendship diptych’, a popular notion at the time to demonstrate a personal bond by pairing portraits.
Johannes Froben was a successful printer and worked closely with Holbein. The humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus lived with Froben in Basel from 1514. Froben was responsible for printing all his written works after that date.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011
Presented to Charles I by the Duke of Buckingham